Delightfully peopled, this view of the smothering viscosity of small-town mores and modi is Hearon's most ruefully amusing and tightly-tuned novel to date. Here a middle-aged woman, smarting from past and present family buffeting, calculates ""the cost of escalating family feuds and the high interest that accrues from one generation to the next,"" as she rides out some nasty surprises. Alma LeCroix, married to the high-school principal, a stuffy twit who'd propositioned her years ago when she was a student, and who beholden-ed her into marriage by sending her to journalism school, is now reporter for the Venice, Missouri, Gazette. But her husband is a dim bulb compared to the giants who ruled her childhood--like muzzy Mother, who shut her in a closet just about every day, and Daddy, the doctor, who never intervened. The child Alma did break out to plumb the feud between the old doctors--Grandfather and his brother Grady--the feud that had sprung from a marital duel between their parents. Alma also told tales about Daddy to Mother, which finally brought about Alma's liberation from the closet. The lessons she learned from her older sisters (who split early on) about cheating (""do the fight thing nine times and do what you want the tenth"") serve her in good stead in present-day Venice (""a two-mile strip of total chaperonage"") during her affair with visiting seismologist Dyer. Meanwhile, life in Venice churns on. There's a battle of churches; a mild flurry over returned natives; floods; rumors of earthquakes; deaths and dyings; a murder; and old secrets that burn while they cauterize. Finally, of course, seismologist Dyer can't take the heat of town scrutiny and goes back, a stray sheep, to his wife, who organizes family prayers. Alma, meanwhile, is shaken by the discovery that her daughter is unwittingly duplicating Alma's long-ago father skewering, and shaken, too, by her father's impending death. But she's sourly resigned to Dyer's defection. After all, not much point in waiting for the Mississippi to roll upstream. A sturdy small-town scan, in which the flotsam of gossip, family messes, and the glazed shield of insularity by which a community protects its own, take on a free-floating velocity.